By Howard Pousner
Gillsville potter Harold Hewell was known by the nickname “Bull” because he was so strong and productive he could produce a room full of pottery in a day.
Hewell, the patriarch of one of Georgia’s oldest pottery-making clans, with seven generations having passed down knowledge of the craft since 1850, died Feb. 14 at age 85.
In John Burrison’s “Brothers in Clay: The Story of Georgia Folk Pottery,” the definitive tome on the grassroots tradition, Harold Hewell spoke about the early expectations of his father, Maryland “Bud” Hewell (1891-1964): “I think he had it in mind he wanted all his boys to be potters… I have three brothers, and we’ve all kept our hands in the business. We must have been born with clay in our veins.”
That seems to have remained true of descendants that have followed Harold Hewell into the family business. Other potters working or learning the craft at Hewell’s Pottery, on Ga. 52 in Gillsville, 12 miles east of Gainesville, are his wife of 62 years Grace Nell, son Chester, grandsons Matthew and Nathaniel and two quickly learning apprentices, great-grandchildren Eli and Susannah. Chester’s wife Sandra handles the business side of the operation.
All the Hewell potters to some extent took lessons from Harold, who threw terra-cotta garden pots and farm wares such as pitchers, jugs and churns (usually fired with an alkaline glaze that gave them their characteristic olive-green finish) with almost impossible symmetrical precision.
“Harold was a fine craftsman of the old school, a master of clay at the potter’s wheel who could throw pots of five and six gallons with seeming effortlessness to produce superbly refined, useful wares,” Georgia State University folklorist Burrison said in an e-mail to the AJC.
His son Chester, whose own pottery-making has been slowed but not stopped by a major stroke late last year, once recounted with awe the output of his father in his heyday: “He could make enough stuff to keep two [assistants] busy, one preparing balls of [of clay] and the other filling the racks. I’ve seen him make 1,000 gallons in one day, and part of it was in [labor-intensive] Rebecca pitchers and wash pots.”
Many full-time potters don’t throw 1,000 gallons worth of pottery in a week.
Harold Hewell, a U.S. Navy veteran of World War II, was low-key by nature — “a true Southern gentleman,” is how Burrison phrased it — and not a self-promoter. But Chester Hewell was so proud of his father’s work ethic that he hesitated when Burrison and others sought to include him and the rest of the family in the Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia, which opened in 2006 as part of the Sautee Nacoochee Center arts complex near Helen. Chester, who eventually relented, felt his father was in a league of his own.
“There are other [folk] potters who have full-time jobs and then they do pottery in their spare time,” Harold Hewell’s grandson Matthew once explained. “But this ain’t a matter of an 8-to-5 job for us — it’s a way of life.”
It’s safe to say that some of Harold Hewell’s bull-like spirit will survive him.
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